During the Global Energy Prize Summit, which took place at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Germany on 10 April 2019, international experts, including Nobel prize laureates, discussed possible scientific and technological solutions to avoid dangerous climate change in line with the commitments under Paris Agreement.
The event was organised by the Global Energy Association, which grants a prestigious annual award for scientific research and innovation focusing on meeting global energy challenges while encouraging young researchers through its Global Energy Youth Program.
One of the previous winners of the Global Energy Prize and Nobel laureate Rodney John Allam, known for his Allam power cycle to convert fossil fuels into mechanical power with a 100 percent carbon capture, warned that Paris commitments could not be met unless policies aiming at incentivising carbon storage are adopted at the EU and global level. Given the growing demand of energy in countries, such as China and India, the British engineer warned that fossil fuels would still constitute the most significant share of the energy mix in 2040. In his view, policymakers should encourage clean investment and development of new storage and capture technologies via subsidies and tax breaks if they are committed to limiting the global temperature rise to 1,5 degrees Celsius.
According to the 2018 Global Energy Prize winner Sergey Alekseenko, the renewables could start dominating the global energy mix in 2050. At the same time, the Russian scientist stressed that solar and wind energy are rather volatile and should therefore be complemented by efficient energy storage systems. “Alternatives, such as geothermal energy, which generates power with the heat from underground sources, should not be ignored”, said Alekseenko. According to the scientist, petrothermal geothermal energy “could provide energy for humanity forever” without any storage requirement.
Adnan Amin, Director-General Emeritus of the International Renewable Energy Agency, pointed out to the fundamental technological changes in the last 8 years that leave room for optimism, as electricity cost generated by solar and wind energies fell by 90 percent and 75 percent, respectively. Predicting that the cost reduction will continue at the same speed thanks to increasing digitalisation, machine learning and Blockchain technology, he recommended governments to reduce subsidies given to fossil fuel in order to enable a decarbonised environmental system in the future. While welcoming the commitment of the the world’s biggest companies to go 100 percent renewable, Amin highlighted the democratisation process in the energy sector, as energy production is becoming more decentralised in countries, such as Germany.
Uli Lemmar from the KIT emphasised the importance of energy conversion and storage devices, such as photovoltaics and batteries, which contribute to a clean environment. The huge success of photovoltaics, which became a billion-dollar industry within a decade, made solar energy one of the cheapest methods of energy generation, especially thanks to the ink jet printing of solar cells. Due to significant cost reductions in solar power, many countries, including China, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, have started to direct huge investments towards solar energy. Although the two third of China’s energy demand is met by fossil fuel, the country built numerous solar plants, including the largest solar plant in the world, which exceeds 1500 mW. Lemmar is of the view that the only way to compete with China in the field of photovoltaics is to create European solar superfactories producing gigawatts of electricity. He also called for a ramp up of the renewables sector in the EU by additional subsidies and framework regulations.
The South Korean Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rae Kwon Chung saw the solution in a "quantum jump", which involves the establishment of a super grid, connecting remote areas to urban centres and transferring excess electricity generated by solar and wind power. This grid is currently in practice in China to transmit electricity from the Western end to the Eastern part of the country. In Europe, such super grids exist between France and the UK, as well as between Italy and Egypt. Highlighting the potential to create such interconnections worldwide to minimise the need for energy storage, the advisor to the UN’s water and disasters body mentioned potential political hurdles, such as geopolitical concerns over energy security and dependency.
The President of the Science Council for Global Initiatives Thomas Albert Blaes suggested building power plants on ships, which would be a back-up plan to respond to peak demand in times and places when solar and wind powers cannot be relied on. In his view, with the help of fast reactors and molten salt technology to contain uranium, the unused ships in the world could be transferred into power ships to replace the nuclear power stations, currently generating 10 percent of the world’s electricity. Yet, questions arise as to safety and security, nuclear waste and its recycling, plutonium problem and technological transfer, which could lead to the production of nuclear weapons.
Michael Williamson, Chief of Section of the United Nations ESCAP, recalled the need for a balanced approach, reminding the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals on affordable and clean energy aiming at leaving no one behind. In his view, ensuring access to electricity and clean cooking for populations that presently lack it would not necessarily have a significant impact on climate change. Stressing that the fast track to renewables would be digitalisation, decarbonisation and decentralisation, Williamson underlined the need for increasing energy efficiency, expanding the share of renewables, enhancing international cooperation, encouraging investment in clean energy infrastructures and reconsidering energy consumption to make it ecologically, economically and socially just.
Finally, the CEO of Pavegen Laurence Kemball-Cook drew attention to other innovative and clean technologies, which could be used to generate energy in smart cities. His award-winning flooring system, converting kinetic energy (i.e. footsteps), into electricity and data, has helped mobilising people around the world to create their own energy in the airports, shopping malls, offices and streets.